The Nuclear Edge - 25 Years of American Thrash
So, it's been a quarter century since the rise of the original New Wave of American Heavy Metal. No, I don't mean the "current" one that attempts to boast bands such as God Forbid, Down, or Hatebreed. I'm talking about the original American heavy metal movement, one that left its indelible mark on both metal and music history.
The big four: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer. And the wild cards: Overkill, Exodus. These were the six bands that rose between 1983 and 1985, who forever altered the way this side of the Pond thought about thrash/speed/heavy metal. Four from California, two from New Jersey. Students of classic rock and disciples of punk, all wanting to outdo each other for speed and ferocity, the wave crashed ashore with a style that had never previously been born on American shores.
So after twenty-five years, what was each group's lasting legacy? What tied them together or made them different?
Metallica: Love them or hate them, they are the ubiquitous name for both heavy metal and American heavy metal. After nine studio albums (five good, one good-ish,) Metallica still seems to be going strong. Sure, they alienated a lot of people over the years. When they cut their hair, it was a problem. The seemingly endless string of litigation against Napster was tiresome. "St. Anger" was a nearly unforgivable debacle. As they say though, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and Metallica not only put metal on the mainstream map, but remains the genre's gold standard.
Megadeth: The band always has, and always will, simply serve as a vehicle for Dave Mustaine. To that end, it’s mind-boggling to consider what might have happened if Dave had ever swallowed his pride for a few fleeting moments and really let a talent like David Ellefson take hold. Megadeth is not only Mustaine’s vehicle, but the band is his twenty-five year attempt to take revenge on Metallica. His obsession with being faster and meaner led to some amazing work (“Peace Sells” is one of the greatest metal albums ever,) but ultimately may have kept Megadeth on the fringe.
Anthrax: Of the big four, Anthrax is the band that most often gets lost in the shuffle. Still, Anthrax can lay claim to more sing-along metal anthems and crowd favorites than any other band. "Among the Living," "Indians," "Anti-social," "NFL," "Caught in a Mosh," "Got the Time," "I am the Law," "Room for One More," crowd favorites all. Always a little less serious and never quite as concerned with the death and destruction of humanity, Anthrax had a style that was closer to punk than the others. Anthrax also stands as the sole band who survived a lead singer change with no serious ill effects (I know the purists will hate this, but "Sound of White Noise," is what I believe is their best album.) Plus, the iconic "Bring the Noise," with Public Enemy.
Slayer: Not much to be said about Slayer that’s terribly in depth. Of all six bands, they may have undergone the least change. Three absolutely iconic albums (“Reign in Blood,” “Seasons in the Abyss,” “South of Heaven,”) cemented their legacy as arguably the biggest bad-asses in metal. Whenever a conversation about intense or scary bands develops, Slayer invariably comes up. They are a metal fan’s metal band. Personally, I have a rule about not listening to Slayer before noon.
Overkill: Bobby Blitz’ band may never get to the fame of the names above them on this list, but not for lack of trying. What makes Overkill so remarkable is their consistency of product. Sort of like a thrash AC/DC, Overkill has one talent, and plays it to the extreme. Take a look at their discography at the All Music Guide, and the ratings are noticeably similar. The downfall of Overkill’s mainstream popularity was that they never did anything totally revolutionary or unique. They did what a lot of others were doing, but they did it faster and higher-pitched, with that New Jersey attitude that can’t be faked.
Exodus: The interesting part about Exodus is that they were poised to really be king of the hill, but were unceremoniously overthrown by Metallica in 1982. Kirk Hammett’s eventual defection to the latter band certainly didn’t help. Still, Exodus were pioneers in thrash, and the first spearhead of the Bay area metal scene. “Bonded by Blood” really looked like a solid entry into a career of metal, but then “Pleasures of the Flesh” totally decimated that early momentum. Frequent missteps and lineup changes have left Exodus on the outside looking in. In 1985 though, they could have challenged the best.
Honorable mention for this wave of heavy metal goes to two bands who showed up just a year or two late: Nuclear Assault and Testament. Nuclear Assault gained fame as one of the harshest but also most socially aware metal bands, and Testament seemed ready for great things after just missing out on a platinum album. I should also give a nod to Annihilator, but their first album wasn’t until 1989, and they’re not American (Vancouver, Canada.)
So what was the common link between the six bands that made them forever associated and immortal? A few things come to mind. First, consider the timeframe. For anyone who had sampled Judas Priest or Iron Maiden or even Black Sabbath, the contemporary hair metal of the day just didn’t cut it. One of the common threads was that the members of these bands did not act like rock stars. Sure in retrospect, they probably did just as much drinking and had just as many girls, but there was no decadence, no hairspray, no glitter. Compared to Bret Michaels, Scott Ian was tough as nails and appreciably uglier. That jumpstarted the “who gives a shit” attitude that is the cornerstone of all heavy metal sensibilities.
The other common thread that takes a little more looking to decipher is that all of these bands secretly gave fans a vent for the fears of the day. Government surveillance, restricted freedoms, police states, the Cold War, nuclear proliferation…everything that people talked about in hushed tones in the ‘80s was played at breakneck speed in the key of defiance. Simply think of the lyrics on some of the following albums: “Master of Puppets,” “So Far, So Good…So What?” “Seasons in the Abyss,” and to include one of the honorable mentions, “Handle With Care,” or “Survive.” Interesting to think that while all these metals acts were playing these songs, the Dead Kennedys were just up the coast doing the same thing, yet the bands are regarded so differently. Not to mention Public Enemy and NWA. Nevertheless, people identified with the themes that American heavy metal was trying to project, even if it was through the lens of a harsh pseudo-reality. One of the downfalls of popular metal now is that the themes don’t resonate in the same manner with the general populace. Metal bands who portray themselves as socially conscious or emotionally affected usually fail in the attempt (see: Staind, Poison the Well, et al.)
Megaforce Records also deserves a sizeable share of the credit for giving a number of speed metal bands the platform they so desperately needed. Without that label, much of what appears in print here may not happen. It’s a shame that Megaforce has not been able to keep sustained success.
As metal fans, after a quarter century, it’s obvious to me how much we owe to these six bands who shaped and defined thrash/speed metal forever. They survive in various states of dignity and success, but they all played their part in making metal the living, breathing, venomous animal it is today.